We are becoming more aware of the insidious nature of addictions and the increasing array of gambling addictions.
In 2013 gambling was classified as an addiction - a serious physical and mental health condition.
Around 47 per cent of Tasmanians gamble each year and some .4 per cent of Tasmanians end up as problem gamblers. About 27,000 Tasmanians are addicted or at risk of addiction with a strong correlation between risks and lower socio-economic status.
Evidence is emerging that COVID-19 has significantly increased the levels of online gambling and the numbers of people becoming addicted. During lockdown in NSW and Victoria there has been a 300 per cent increase in the gambling spend.
While over 80 per cent of Tasmanians would prefer more effort in minimising risk and support services, this rarely converts to changed voting behaviours or street marches.
It is important to understand why this seeming paradox occurs.
First, problem gambling still sits on the fringes of public policy and has historically been overshadowed on the one hand by the scale of substance abuse addictions (most obviously alcohol) and on the other by the significance and scope of the gambling industry as an employer.
Second, gambling addiction is not highly visible with only the occasional gambler stealing to fund their habit landing in court.
Third, gambling is widespread and enjoyable for most people, a source of pleasure and entertainment.
Fourth, there is the moral argument that if people choose to gamble to win they should accept gambling to lose. The risk is to be managed by the individual not society. No ethical issues here.
Governments and industry also point to the swag of programs (and industry funding) to prevent and respond to problem gambling; in Tasmania mainly through the Gambling Support program.
Finally, we are becoming overwhelmed by a surge of society-wide risks (COVID, climate change and mental health come to mind) so problem gambling struggles to make it onto the front page anymore.
When combined, these arguments muffle the concerns that problem gambling is likely on the rise, the poor are the most vulnerable, addictions are serious health conditions, more could be done to prevent gambling addiction and the winning odds are stacked in favour of a privileged industry.
As Labor found out it also means that while you can take the high moral ground and try to limit risk, the industry is well organised to strike back and not enough voting Tasmanians care deeply enough about the issue to take a stand - at least not yet.
But as more people become aware of the nature of gambling and other addiction risks (especially online gaming), attitudes are changing.
Those countries that have more of a focus on mitigating gambling risk than us have policies which firstly locate gambling policy outside of revenue agencies (in Tasmania this means Treasury and Finance) so there is not a bias towards revenue generation.
There is also greater focus on community and professional (especially primary health) education and screening for gambling risks - for example gambling risks are added to screening for smoking and alcohol risks.
In addition, there is significantly more investment in research and alternatives to gambling, often funded by a significant specific industry levy.
Most importantly, there are deeper community and parliamentary conversations, generally and with industry, about the best mix to enable responsible gambling and better protection of the most vulnerable.
This contrasts with the behind-closed-doors deals that mark Tasmania's history in this policy space.
In this state gambling addiction is seen as an annoying by-product of a lucrative industry.
Global concerns about problem gambling are rising, driven by the extension of gambling risks to more population groups - especially young people 18-25 who make up the fastest growing gambling cohort. The shift is being driven by the increasing awareness of gambling addiction as a serious health condition requiring complex interventions to treat.
Also, the devastating personal, social and economic costs of addictions are becoming clearer and there is more focus on the ethical dilemmas of encouraging behaviours that can lead to addiction.
Within the next five years we can expect a substantial shift in policy as gambling risks spill into the mainstream of our community.
Governments will continue to scramble to get on top of the exponential growth (most recently by trying to regulate offshore digital gambling platforms) and industry will try even harder to better demonstrate corporate social responsibility credentials.
Back in Tasmania we currently have yet another theatre playing out in our Parliament where our major parties are trying hard to demonstrate deep care for at-risk gamblers while ensuring that no Tasmanian will be put off playing the pokies and industry profits will increase.
No doubt the outcome will marginally reduce risk but it hardly counts as reform.
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